“Next number, please,” the voice behind the speakers droned.
D-24461 leaned heavily on the stark steel table, staring at the black rotary phone before her. She looked up at the empty room, towards the wall where, she assumed, the Foundation researchers were cataloguing her answers. “Where were we at again?”
There was a pause, and she could hear typing faintly over the speakers. “222-3381, I think,” came the response. D-24461 had never met the voice that gave her orders from over the speakers, but she could easily picture him based on the voice. Early thirties, no taller than five-six, skinny and pale from years in front of computers. D-24461 sighed and stuck her tanned finger into the phone’s dial. “You’d better be right,” she said. “Last one tasted like spoiled milk.” The phone somehow put a different taste in her mouth with each number she dialed. As D-24461 let go of the last digit, the taste of sour milk filled her mouth again, and she leapt up from her seat, throwing the receiver from her hand. It bounced limply at the end of its cord.
“Fucking hell,” D-24461 said, trying to spit out the taste. It didn’t help any; it wasn’t technically real. Thankfully, it dissipated after about ten seconds, like the rest.
“Spoiled milk again?”
“What do you think, asshole?” D-24461 sat back down, rubbing her temples. “Next time, make sure you write down your results.”
“Of course. 222-3382, then.”
D-24461 sighed, then dialed the number. Sourness struck the sides of her tongue, and she couldn’t help but pucker at the sensation. “Oh, man, that’s just straight lemon.”
D-24461 dialed. 222-3611. She quickly started coughing. “Pepper. Lots of pepper.” The room was silent save for her coughing as the researcher behind the wall waited for the standard ten seconds to pass.
She dialed. The taste of tart fruit filled her mouth. “Apples, definitely.”
“We already have apples. Could you be more specific?”
“This one’s more sour, so probably green apples?”
“Thank you. Next number.”
She dialed again. “Ugh. I think it’s wood.” She considered the flavor for a moment. “Wait, I recognize that from barbecues as a kid. Hickory, I think.”
“Interesting. Next number, please.”
“Look, can’t we take a break, man?” D-24461 stood up, staring at the small camera mounted in the corner of the room. “We’ve been at this for three hours already! Not to mention every day for the last two months.”
“We really should keep going,” the voice on the speaker said.
“Fuck that. I just need five minutes where I’m not tasting something crazy. Give me that, at least.”
“…All right, fine. Let me know when you’re ready.”
D-24461 sat on the corner of the table, arms crossed and eyes closed. “You’re not gonna call security on me?”
The voice behind the speaker scoffed. “We don’t have the manpower to call security for every insubordination.” He paused. “Besides, I get it.”
D-24461 stood back up, still angry. “What do you get, exactly? You’re not the one down here playing Dial-a-Flavor on this stupid phone a thousand times.” D-24461 stared at the camera, wishing she could look him in the face instead.
“You’ve been doing that for a couple months, right?”
“I’ve been cataloguing the results for three years now.”
“Oh.” She sat back down on the table slowly. “That sucks.”
Neither of them spoke. D-24461 broke the silence. “What’s your name, guy?”
“My name? I really shouldn’t be telling you that.”
“What, like that’s gonna hurt your precious data if I know your name?”
“Well, no. But-“
“But what? Come on, I’ll start. I’m Francesca, but everyone calls me Frankie.”
“Alright, alright. I’m, uh, Jonah.”
“Jonah?” Frankie, D-24461, laughed. “What a white kid name. So what’s your whale, Jonah? What are you hunting?”
“Jonah wasn’t hunting a whale. God sent it to swallow him up to teach him a lesson.”
“Huh, really? Who am I thinking of, then?”
“Ahab, probably. Moby Dick.”
“Right, right. I never paid much attention in Sunday school. Or English class.” She frowned. “Well, what lesson are you getting taught, then?”
“I wish I knew,” Jonah said. “But it sure feels like I’m in the belly of the beast now.”
“You and me both, man.”
They were silent for another minute. This time, Jonah was the one who spoke.
“So, uh, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you end up here?”
“What, like testing this crap? One of you people told me I could do five years here instead of twenty in the clink. Who’d pass up that?”
“Wait, twenty?” Jonah sounded incredulous. “You weren’t on death row?”
Frankie put her hands on her hips. “Hell no! What do you think I did?”
Jonah hesitated. “I’m not sure. The higher-ups always told us that the D-Classes were all murderers, or worse.”
Frankie laughed, a wild, raucous laugh of disbelief. “No way, man. I’ve never even held a gun. My man used to rob banks with his crew, and I was their getaway driver. Only reason I got thrown in jail as long as I did was because some idiot cop jumped in front of the van trying to stop us. Charged me with attempted murder of an officer. Can you believe that?”
Jonah laughed nervously along with her. “I guess not. But what’s going to happen to you once you’ve done your five years?”
“The spook that came to see me in jail just said they’d let me go.”
“I suppose they could. They’ll probably dose you with amnestics first though.”
“Dose me with what now?”
The speaker screeched, and Frankie winced. Jonah must have knocked the mike over. There was a soft thump as it was put back into place. “I shouldn’t have mentioned that.” He was silent for a moment. “Oh, fine. If I’m going to get in trouble for chatting with the D-Class, it doesn’t make much difference. So, uh, amnestics. They’re memory-altering drugs. Don’t know too much about them, but they ought to be able to wipe the whole time that you’re here.”
“Now that’s some fancy shit,” Frankie said. “Shame though. Would’ve liked to tell my mom that I met someone in jail that wasn’t a complete asshole.” Jonah didn’t answer. “I’m talking about you, whale-boy.”
“Oh! Oh. Thanks,” Jonah murmured.
“You’re welcome. Now, since you asked me, I get to ask you: How’d you end up with a shitheap job like this?”
“Not sure. The Foundation recruited me straight out of my master’s and said that they were going to start me on some simple anomalous objects before upgrading my security clearance and putting me on a research team. Three years later, here I am, still doing the same thing.”
“That really sucks, man. Doesn’t matter how secret the company, bosses just don’t want to give raises. I bet the bosses here are loaded, though”
“Maybe,” Jonah said. “They’re pretty secretive. Most people don’t even know who they really are.”
“Yeah? That’s wild. But I guess that’s what secret groups like you do.”
“I guess it is.”
Another pause, but this one was less tense, a natural pause in conversation. Frankie clapped her hands once, then sat back in the chair and picked up the receiver. “Alright, I’m ready to go at this thing again. Where were we?”
Jonah clattered back to his computer. Frankie chuckled. “Um, we’re on 222-3613.”
Frankie dialed the number. “Jonah,” she sung, mocking, but no longer angry. “That’s the wood again. Get your shit together.”
“Ha! The white boy can swear. Alright, 3614, then?” She dialed again. “Oh, man, that one’s a burger! Finally a good one. Hold on, let me dial that a couple more times.”
They strove on, dialing number after number. It wasn’t any less tedious, but perhaps, somehow, it was just a little bit better.